The classic Valley success story goes something like this: a geeky kid falls in love with computers at a very early age, learns to code, invents something cool in college, and drops out to do a startup.
That’s about the exact opposite of how Poojan Kumar came to be CEO of a hot storage startup called PernixData, which has raised $62 million in VC funding, including backing from famous angels like Marc Benioff, the billionaire CEO of Salesforce.
In the three years since it’s been out of stealth, it’s landed more than 650 enterprise customers and grown to 200 employees with offices worldwide.
“The most interesting three years of my life”
Kumar never dreamed of being a tech CEO when he was kid.
He grew up in a middle-class family in India. His dad, who had grown up in Russia, loved to play chess. He taught his 12-year-old son to play and soon Kumar was beating his dad at the game. The proud dad enrolled Kumar in a local tournament, which he won, earning him the “budding Grandmaster award.”
“And that began the most interesting three years of my life,” Kumar told Business Insider.
The teenage Kumar started playing chess professionally. His dad even hired a chess tutor.
“Contrary to popular belief, what it takes to learn the game is not about playing a lot and becoming good. It’s more about solving problems,” Kumar says. The trick is to look at the board and work out the end result of every possible move — without touching the board.
“It’s not different than a mathematical problem except you had to do it in your head,” he recalls.
He spent his teens studying chess for 3 to 4 hours a day, and winning tournaments against other teens his age, first locally, then nationwide, then internationally.
People started calling him the next “Vishy Anand” an famous Indian chess Grandmaster and multi-time World Chess Champion.
His dad ended his chess career
At age 15, he was on track to make chess his career, when his dad pulled the plug.
“He never anticipated it as a career path for me. He, thought it was going to be a recreational thing,” Kumar remembers.
His dad worried how hard it was to make a living playing chess.
“One thing in common among all the players I saw, including coaches, they were all very poor. Chess is not a glamorous game, hence there’s no money in the game,” he said.
What else should his brilliant son do? Become a computer programmer.
Looking back, Kumar says “I’m happy my dad made that decision for me. Chess is great, and I’ll keep it as a hobby but it was time to go back and focus on higher education.”
So Kumar took all those hours he had spent studying chess and all that expertise in problem-solving and spent them studying to get into the most prestigious tech school in the country, the Indian Institute of Technology.
IIT is like MIT, only it was harder to get in to in those days. It only accepted about 100 students a year into its computer science program. With India’s population of a billion people, it’s almost statistically impossible to get accepted.
But Kumar got in. It was a “life-changing event,” he says. And he graduated at the top of his class.
So he doubled down on his luck and once again tried to do the impossible: get his master’s degree in the US at Stanford. This was 1999, and Stanford only accepted maybe 5 students a year from IIT, he says.
Stanford accepted Kumar and gave him a full-ride scholarship.
The Stanford grad program is where he met his one-day co-founder, Satyam Vaghani. Vaghani would go on to join a little Stanford startup called VMware — now worth about $20 billion as a subsidiary of EMC — as one of its earliest employees. He stayed there until he and Kumar started PernixData in 2012.
At Stanford, Kumar caught the startup bug. It was the height of the internet bubble.
“Google was just getting formed. People were dropping out to start startups. I got enamoured and came close to dropping out for an idea.”
But before he could leave school for his startup, the bubble burst and “the whole thing crashed,” he said.
Oracle came calling
With the startup world dead, Oracle showed up at Stanford and swooped up the brightest engineers, offering them good salaries.
“Oracle was loving the fact that it could attract Stanford computer graduates. A Stanford CS guy never even looked that direction but three of us joined Oracle from Stanford at that time,” Kumar jokes about it now.
The startup bug still had him, so he did it within Oracle.
There was a new kind of database becoming popular, known as a data warehouse (the precursor to today’s big data trend). It stored a lot of stuff on low-cost servers so companies could analyse information for business insights.
Oracle didn’t have a data warehouse product so Kumar and a couple of other guys decided to build one. “I thought, this is my chance to kind of do a startup, but at a big company,” he says.
They got a vice president to sign off on the project, and they built a prototype in their spare time.
Oracle founder Larry Ellison wasn’t involved in the project until he saw the prototype. After he saw it, “We got a blank check from Larry go and make it happen,” Kumar says.
This would become Oracle’s Exadata product. It ultimately became so successful, CEO Larry Ellison bought a hardware company, Sun Microsystems, to boost it.
As Exadata took off to become a multi-billion product for Oracle, Kumar became a star engineer at Oracle.
And then he failed
But Kumar still longed to do an actual startup. So in 2007, he left Oracle to launch a company called PixBlitz.
After he dumped his personal money into it and raised “a couple million” in VC seed money, the economy crashed in 2008.
Kumar couldn’t raise any more money, and he couldn’t sell the company. So he closed shop.
“And that was the end of my first try of doing something of my own outside,” he laughs about it now.
He got hired by VMware, where his old friend Vaghani worked although the two didn’t work together. He stayed there for nearly two years until VMware opted to spin out his area into a new company called Pivotal.
Meanwhile, after a long career at VMware, Vaghani was ready to move on, too. So the two launched PernixData.
And Kumar’s luck kicked back in, coupled with his hard work ethic.
The two instantly landed $7 million from angels like John Thompson (Microsoft’s chairman) and Mark Leslie (former CEO of Veritas Software). They got the backing based on their reputations at VMware and Oracle and a 35-slide PowerPoint. They didn’t even have a prototype. (“We joked that the deck was worth $200,000 a slide,” Kumar tells us.)
PernixData solves an interesting problem for enterprises related to flash storage. Flash is the same kind of storage on your smartphone or thumb drive, but has gradually moved into more powerful computers thanks to its speed — it’s a lot faster to read and write data to it than older forms of storage.
PernixData’s software that takes all the flash storage companies have across all of their computer servers and other storage systems and turns it into one giant pool of very fast flash storage that can be used for a company’s most important business apps.
As Vaghani describes it, these companies suddenly have access to more storage that works faster.
And companies seem to be eating it up. With the founders’ deep industry connections in the storage industry, PernixData quickly landed a whole roster of marquee customers from Adobe to Costco to US Bank.
At the same time, the flash storage industry is melting down and this, oddly enough, is creating more opportunity for their software product, not less.
Giant EMC is distracted by its proposed merger with Dell. Younger public storage contenders like Nimble, Pure Storage, and Violin Memory are embattled in their own struggles as flash storage becomes cheaper and more commoditized, filled with competition from bigger players like Hewlett Packard Enterprise and, more recently, Hitachi.
“As the top collapses in our industry, this is a significant opportunity for us in a market with billions of dollars of market cap,” he says. “New companies like us have the opportunity to become the next billion-dollar companies.”
In fact, he says, it’s a lot like playing chess.
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